Emma Frances Brooke was born on 22 December 1844 in Macclesfield, Cheshire, the daughter of wealthy industrialist Joseph Brooke and his wife Anne. She was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, co-founded by Millicent Garrett Fawcett. In 1879 she moved to London and became a socialist, joining the Fabian Society in 1885, the year following its formation. Brooke studied at the London School of Economics and wrote analyses of the working conditions of women. Under the pseudonym E. Fairfax Byrrne, she also wrote several novels in the New Woman genre, her themes often concerning chastity and eugenics.
A Superfluous Woman (1894) was by far her most popular novel and the one for which she is best remembered. While her purpose was to argue for premarital chastity, W T Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, declared it “an immoral tale”:
“its whole significance lies in the supreme audacity of the authoress. She is so penetrated by a sense of the hideous horror of the fashionable, loveless marriage of a healthy young woman to a roué worn out by excess and honeycombed by disease, that she compels her readers to admit that even the unblushing proposal her heroine made to a man who loved her was virtue itself compared with the union which the Church blessed and all the papers chronicled with admiration.”
Brooke’s political views were also expressed through her journalism. In 1888, she published ‘Women and Their Sphere’ in Annie Besant’s socialist journal Our Corner. Here she argued that motherhood was the reason and excuse for women’s subordinate position in society.1
Her other novels included: Transition (1895), Life the Accuser (1896), The Confession of Stephen Whapshare (1898), The Engrafted Rose (1900), The Poet’s Child (1905), Twins of Skirlaugh Hall (1903), Susan Wooed and Susan Won (1905), Sir Elyot of the Woods (1907), The Story of Hawksgarth Farm (1909), and The House of Robershaye (1912).
Brooke listed her interests in Who’s Who as bird-watching and “listening to clever people talk”. She never married . Brooke died aged 82 of cardiac degeneration on 28 November 1926 at a nursing home in Weybridge, Surrey. Her novels had long since fallen into obscurity, but she is now enjoying a resurgence of critical interest.
Victorian Secrets publishes A Superfluous Woman in paperback and Kindle editions.
- This article is reproduced in full in our critical edition of A Superfluous Women. [↩]